The author who put a human face on the migrant crisis in the Med

The LÉ Samuel Beckett dropped anchor in Bantry Bay yesterday to play an integral part in the West Cork Literary Festival.

This particular festival highlight took place onboard and featured BBC radio journalist Emma Jane Kirby. She was interviewed by Sue Leonard about her recent book The Optician of Lampedusa, which she wrote after reporting from the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

The naval ship was an inspired venue, not only for its literary name but for the shared journey of the vessel and its crew, who served in the Mediterranean on humanitarian work rescuing migrants from the ocean.

The ship’s 2016 deployment was featured in the recent RTÉ documentary The Crossing.

Audience members sat on the top deck, basked in sunshine, and listened to Ms Kirby recount the harrowing experiences she encountered. A voice recording of the real-life optician Carmine Menna, a 60-year-old Italian who threw himself into the humanitarian disaster in the Med, set the tone of the afternoon.

Lt Cmdr Darragh Kirwan with author Emma Jane Kirby on board the LÉ Samuel Beckett in Bantry Harbour

At the height of public concern about the migrant crisis, Ms Kirby realised ‘migrant fatigue’ had set in on what she describes as one of the greatest human tragedies of our time, as well as one of the biggest news stories of our age.

This compelled Ms Kirby to seek stories that would cut through this fatigue. An investigation of people who were involved in the crises led her to meet Mr Menna, an everyman we could all identify with, someone who lived his daily life on the island of Lampedusa, 300km north of Tripoli in Libya, without getting involved in what was unfolding on the shores.

Until, that is, he took a life-changing boat trip while on holiday with his wife and six others.

Author Emma Jane Kirby with host Sue Leonard and their audience on board the LÉ Samuel Beckett in Bantry Harbour for a reading of ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’.

One morning they awoke to a sea of drowning migrants whose vessel had gone down. In the moment he first grasped the hand of a drowning migrant, the situation became humanised for him. Mr Menna and his friends pulled 47 migrants from the sea that day.

Mr Menna had not wanted to share his story, refusing to be cast as a hero, and warning Ms Kirby it would haunt her. However, she convinced him of the value of sharing his experience, which she fictionalised in the book. Her report ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’, on which this book is based, went on to win the Bayeux-Calvados Award for War Correspondents.

Ms Kirby lightened the sombre mood by speaking about other missions and mishaps. A trip to the China Sea in high weather resulted in two rafts containing the entire belongings of the press crew flipping in the wind as they descended the ladder — a near miss that saw them dressed in Australian Navy boiler suits for several days.

Maria O’Donovan, Kinsale, and Bernard O’Sullivan, Turners’ Cross, Cork, on board the LÉ Samuel Beckett in Bantry Harbour for a reading of ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’ by Emma Jane Kirby.

Lt Donnacha Cahalane and Lt Cathal Quigley were among the crew onboard the LÉ Samuel Beckett and who served on Operation Pontus.

Lt Quigley said: “It’s great to see it from a different perspective. Some of the readings today would provoke memories. The book is very good, we are delighted to have the author onboard.”

The West Cork Literary Festival continues until 23 July.


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